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Chanute Receives State OK to Bond for FTTH Deployment

The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) will allow the city of Chanute move forward with its plan to serve residents and local businesses with its municipal network reports the Wichita Eagle. KCC staff had recommended that the community, which has built out a network over the course of decades, receive KCC approval. 

In keeping with an antiquated 1947 state law, K.S.A. 10-123, the city needed KCC approval to issue the revenue bonds. In keeping with the statutory requirements, the KCC found that the expansion is necessary and appropriate for the city, its consumers and investors. The KCC also also determined that the expansion will not duplicate an existing utility service.

In its filing [PDF], Chanute indicated that its network is an essential part of the local economy and the community's future:

Chanute is a rural community, and like all rural communities, access to broadband is fundamental to the well-being of its citizens and even to the survival of the community itself. Chanute does not need to convince the Commission of the importance of having access to a high- speed broadband network. The Commission is well aware of that need. The investments contemplated for Chanute's broadband network are necessary and appropriate to allow Chanute to meet that need in its territory.

As the city points out, incumbents AT&T and Cable One, do not offer anything close to the level of service of the planned gigabit FTTH network. As we cover in our 2012 report on Chanute, AT&T and Cable One seem to have no interest in serving the community beyond minimum expectations. It was the need for better services that inspired the city to build out its infrastructure and offer services to local businesses.

Prior the the KCC ruling, the Wichita Eagle reported that AT&T requested and obtained permission to intervene in the proceeding. AT&T's subsidiary Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SWBT) petitioned to intervene in November [PDF], stating:

SWBT's interests and those of its customers may be affected by any order or determination of the Commission as may hereafter be adopted in the above- captioned proceeding.

AT&T told the Eagle:

“Any decision made by the KCC could impact AT&T’s business operations in the area, which is why we asked to intervene in the proceeding,” the company said in a written response to questions from The Eagle. “AT&T remains interested in both broadband issues and the work of the KCC.”

Larry Gates, Director of Utilities in Chanute, 
told the Eagle that the city is ready to issue the revenue bonds and begin connecting customers as soon as the KCC approves the request.

In their filing, the city also commented on the the outdated nature of the state law requirement. From the Eagle article:

In the commission case, Chanute is arguing that the 1947 law was actually designed to protect municipalities from defaulting on bonds because of private-sector competition, not to protect private-sector providers from competition with local government.

Since then, lawmakers and regulators have almost entirely deregulated telecommunication services, counting on competition in the marketplace to keep providers from charging too much or providing substandard service.

“This reasoning (behind the 1947 law) reflects an environment where construction of a telecommunications network was considered a natural monopoly, where one company could supply an entire market at less cost than two or more companies,” Chanute’s filing said. “That is no longer the case in the telecommunications marketplace.”

The 1947 law “does really sort of fly in the face of everything that has been said about competition,” [David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board] said. “It’s either a competitive world and you can stand on your own two feet, or it’s not.”

KCC staff agreed with Chanute. At the time the law was implemented, it was meant to protect the interests of the monopolies that served the rural areas, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 shifted policy to encouraging competition.

There are other providers in the area, writes staff, but none of them can provide the caliber of services Chanute will offer. Because AT&T and Cable One do not offer services anywhere near the gigabit FTTH planned by Chanute's broadband utility, there would be no duplication of services.

Staff also agrees with the city, when it analyzes the need for the expansion. From the staff report [PDF]:

Upgrading Chanute's facilities would not only benefit the citizens of Chanute but its community anchor institutions and community business partners as well. In addition, by improving and expanding upon the fiber optic network currently in place by Chanute, Chanute is protecting its current investment. Staff therefore believes the expansion plans as contemplated are appropriate for the municipality and its consumers, and for the protection of its investors.

For a look back at Chanute's story, listen to episode #16 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Chris interviewed Larry Gates and then City Manager JD Lester.

DubLINK Network Supports Economic Development, Health Care, and Supercomputing

Award-winning supercomputing apps, medical research, economic development, and quantum computing advances. What do they all have in common? They all depend on the DubLINK network running underneath Dublin, Ohio, a suburb on the Northwest edge of Columbus. The city of 43,000 people has 125 miles of fiber optics in the ground, both within its own boundaries and in the form of fiber purchased by the city within metro and regional networks. 

DubLINK began in 1999 as a public private partnership with the Fishel company to build an institutional network. In the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Dublin worried that a recent massive investment of $70 million in streetscaping would be undone as competing providers dug up newly paved streets to install fiber optics. To avoid this, the City signed a franchise agreement with Fishel to install a multi-conduit system, with the city receiving some conduit for its own use.  

Using 1.25” conduits installed in the city’s existing sewer system, the network runs for 25 miles underneath Dublin’s business district and connects six city buildings, who use their own lit fiber for data and voice services, eliminating expense leased line fees. This has allowed the city to save approximately $400,000 per year for the last 12 years in connectivity and information technology expenses.

In 2004, Dublin spent $3.5 million to purchase 96 strands running 100 additional miles through Columbus FiberNet, bringing the total length of the DubLink network to its current 125 miles. FiberNet is a duct system that runs throughout a significant portion of central Ohio, including Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.

The following year, the City of Dublin struck a deal with the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet). OARnet is a 1,600 mile statewide fiber backbone connecting K-12 schools, colleges, universities, federal research labs, and other institutions. A $500,000 grant from the Ohio Board of Regents allowed DubLINK to make its connection with OARnet, and the city gave OARnet an indefeasible right to use 4 of its 96 fiber strands throughout its entire 125 mile network. They called their partnership CORN, for the Central Ohio Research Network. Earlier this year, the Ohio State Legislature awarded DubLink $300,000, which along with a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant and a $328,000 local contribution, will allow DubLINK to match OARnet’s 100 Gbps speeds throughout its entire network.

Seal - Dublin, Ohio

According to Dana McDaniels, Dublin's Director of Development, the city has spent approximately $5.5 million over the years in building, purchasing, and upgrading DubLINK. For this investment, he estimates that the city has received at least a $35 million return on investment already. This includes avoided costs around $4.8 million ($400,000 per year over 12 years), leases to telecoms and other entities of about one third of the city's dark fiber that amount to $3.2 million, and the much more significant gains in employment and thus tax revenue that have resulted from companies expanding or relocating in Dublin to take advantage of its incredible connectivity.

Dublin has a two percent income tax, one quarter of which is dedicated to a wide variety of capital improvement projects. It also uses a small part of this revenue as collateral for tax-increment financing bonds, which it has used to fund some of its share of network construction costs, with the rest of the $5.5 million in total network investments coming from the regular capital improvements budget.

The network is currently being used by a wide variety of public, private, and nonprofit institutions, including National Mutual Insurance, Nestle, Dublin Methodist Hospital, and online reference catalogue company OCLC Inc. OCLC connects to 70,000 libraries around the world, but relies on DubLINK to secure its data by connecting to backup data centers throughout the region.

Rather than narrowly focusing on network revenue, Dublin takes a broader economic development approach to its fiber resources. Development Director McDaniels uses fiber connectivity to lure businesses to locate or expand in Dublin the way other cities use tax credits or land giveaways. Ohio Health, which runs six hospitals in the state and has various other facilities, was granted 4 strands of DubLINK's fiber, which helped them decide to headquarter in the city. They now light and manage the fiber themselves, using it connect to all of their facilities throughout the region. Because they are able to so easily run their operations from Dublin, they have expanded their employment in the city from 300 to 1,200 people.

This September, one of DubLINK’s institutional anchors announced that they would be using DubLink to test new applications for quantum computing. Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit applied science and technology company, signed a five-year deal with DubLINK to use the city’s fiber for their Quantum Key Distribution network, the first commercially-funded network to use quantum computing to encrypt information. Using subatomic particles instead of binary code to transmit information, Battelle claims they have created a form of encryption that will be hack-proof even if quantum computers make traditional encryption techniques obsolete. 

DubLINK proved its usefulness in 2013 as well, when a collaborative including representatives from the City of Dublin, the University of Missouri, and The Ohio State University were recognized for creating the “Best Application for Advanced Manufacturing” at the Next Generation Application Summit in Chicago. The team developed an app called Simulation-as-a-Service, which allows small businesses and labs to remotely access supercomputing capability. Small manufacturers would be able to use the app (in combination with a robust fiber optic connection) to run design simulations through supercomputers on the Ohio State campus, as well as trade design information in massive data files. 

According to Prasad Calyam, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Missouri and the leader of the team developing the app: 

“The app really requires the infrastructure,” said Calyam. “The infrastructure is not the end goal of the project. It’s really the app. But we couldn’t build the app without the infrastructure.”

“Our work on Simulation-as-a-Service is one example where having a city invest in broadband infrastructure will help economic development,” said Calyam. “It helps companies to move there, to use the infrastructure, and essentially build new kinds of collaborations.”

Expedient Logo

The combination of DubLINK’s fiber infrastructure and proximity to The Ohio State University has also helped attract a growing number of data centers and medical research operations. Dublin-based Cardinal Health opened a research center in the city earlier this year, and Expedient Data Centers recently announced plans for a $52 million data center.

An even bigger fish is on the line for Dublin, which is competing with neighboring suburb Hilliard to be the location for a new $1.1 billion Amazon data center. Amazon has been secretive about its plans, but Ohio Governor John Kasich recently confirmed earlier leaks that the center would be located in the Columbus area. 

Dublin is pushing ahead with the expansion of DubLINK in the coming months and years. In conjunction with the upgrade to 100 Gbps speeds, the network is also beginning to move towards an open access Fiber-to-the-Premise model for major office and multitenant buildings in the city. Rather than bringing fiber to the curb and waiting for building owners to take advantage, the city will be bringing the fiber directly into at least 20 buildings this year and about 10 each year thereafter, with the option to increase the pace if it incents businesses to locate or expand in Dublin.

DubLINK has also struck a deal with a local data center that will serve as a "meet me" room and is in talks with ISPs, which will allow those intitutions using DubLINK fiber to connect to whatever ISP they wish over the publicly owned fiber. It will also allow them to connect to OARnet, the National Science Foundation's GENI rack, and the Ohio State University's supercomputer remotely - all at 100 Gbps. 

The local schools are on the docket for connections as well, with the three city high schools and administration building at the head of the line. They all stand to gain 100 Gbps network connections, and will also benefit from the nearly limitless educational resources of Ohio's universities and research organizations available through OARnet.

Whether or not Dublin successfully woos Amazon, its fiber optic network has proven to be a valuable community asset. It has allowed the city to partner with a local provider to launch a city-wide Wi-Fi system over 24 square miles, which uses DubLINK for backhaul and in return allocates 25% of its bandwidth to the city for its own uses, such as police communication and logistical support for large public events. It has supported medical and computing research, creating good jobs in the process. For all these achievements, Dublin has twice been named a Top 7 Community by the Intelligent Communities Forum, and last year Dana McDaniels, who oversaw DubLINK's development, was given ICF's Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Muscatine, Iowa, Upgrading to FTTH

Muscatine Power & Water (MP&W) announced in late November that it will upgrade its municipal hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) communications network to an FTTH network. The upgrade will allow Muscatine to offer gigabit speeds. Construction is set to begin in 2016; the FTTH network is scheduled to go live in 2017.

According to the press release, the community hopes to capitalize on the new technology for economic development opportunities, better residential services, and replace an aging system with future proof infrastructure. From the press release [PDF]:

Consideration was also given to two other plans that would have either maintained or incrementally improved the existing HFC system. As stewards of the public trust, the Board of Trustees felt the other options were costly short-term fixes and that FTTH was clearly the superior option.

“Tonight’s decision assures that Muscatine Power and Water will continue to be a leader in telecommunications,” said LoBianco, “the new system will be able meet the bandwidth needs of the community for years to come while reducing maintenance and improving reliability. It ensures that the communications capabilities in Muscatine are as good as in any large city which enjoys the benefits of FTTH technology.”

Muscatine sits in the far southeast corner of the state and is home to approximately 29,000 people. The community established a municipal water utility in 1900, an electric utility in 1922, and its communications utility in 1997. According to the press release, the community was unhappy with the previous incumbent and an overwhelming majority of local voters elected to establish what is now called MachLink. The network offers video and Internet access.

A Muscatine Journal article reporting on a recent meeting of the Board of Water, Electric, and Communications Trustees notes that the project will be funded with an interdepartmental loan, one of the three most common funding mechanisms. (For more on funding municipal networks, check out our fact sheet [PDF].)

The article also reported that the communications utility posted a $64,000 profit in October which was higher than expected. In fact,  the entire year has been better than expected, even though revenues were down: 

The communications utility posted profit of $64,134 in October, compared to the budgeted profit of $43,928. A 3.7 percent decrease in revenue was driven by a lower number of cable television subscribers, but expenses were lower due to lower programming fees. A loss of $26,723 was budgeted for the year through October. Instead, profit of $470,960 was posted.

North Georgia Town Considering Fiber for Business

The City Council of the city of Commerce is considering using its existing fiber resources to offer connectivity to local businesses. At a November 3rd work session, Council members reviewed the plan and, according to the Main Street News, members voiced support for the idea.

“We’ve been actively working on this for months,” [City Manager Pete] Pyrzenski told the council. “We’ve been counseled on, we’ve talked through the options… this is a pretty viable utility for Commerce.” 

“We are ready to pull the fiber,” Pyrzenski declared. “Our role is to supply the fiber. We’re not going to get into cable TV, not going to get into telephone, just high-speed Internet.”

“Businesses have been looking for an alternative,” noted Mayor Clark Hill.

Windstream now serves the community of 6,500 but there have been significant complaints and there are no other options in this north Georgia town.

The city will need to invest $70,000 for equipment and legal fees. The network plan will use an existing line and will run additional fiber to expand the reach to more commercial customers. At this point, the city estimates a 5 - 10 year payback but that period may be reduced if local businesses respond positively. The city will fund the deployment with an interdepartmental loan from their municipal electric utility. Commerce also owns a municipal gas utility.

Chanute City Leaders Approve Financing Strategy for FTTH in Rural Kansas

Chanute's City Commission passed a motion this month to fund its planned FTTH project with revenue bonds, bringing the entire community closer to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, reports the Chanute Tribune

In addition to authorizing a plan to secure $18.9 million in revenue bonds, the motion also included funds for a pre-deployment baseline analysis focused on economic development and funds to hire an attorney. The bonds include debt service reserve funds and additional funding to make early interest payments. The plan determines the city will pay off the investment in a little over 14 years, based on a 45 percent take rate.

The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) must approve the plan. The KCC is a state regulatory body with a variety of responsibilities, including regulating telecommunications utility rates. The KCC also handles rates for electricity, natural gas, and liquid pipeline services. They handle safety issues, licensing, energy conservation, etc. If the KCC does approve the plan, the bonds can be secured without a public vote unless the city receives any petitions. Chanute still plans on providing residential gig service for $40 per month.

According to the Tribune, 62 percent of 1,030 returned surveys indicated yes or maybe as to whether or not they would be interested in signing up for high-speed service at home or at work; 38 percent said no. City officials are optimistic that the project will blossom even beyond those figures:

“I think once it starts rolling out, a lot of people will see what type of services they’re getting through the city,” [Mayor Greg] Woodyard said, “and they’ll get those bundle packages and we’ll be able to offer them a better product than they’re currently getting at a cheaper price. I think more people will sign up for it in that point in time.”

Woodyard also noted that Chanute is setting an example for other Kansans suffering from poor connectivity:

“A lot of other communities are looking at starting to do this, possibly,” Woodyard said. “We are the trendsetters for the state of Kansas. Everybody’s looking at us to see how we go through the process of doing the fiber project.”

For the complete story on Chanute's network, download our 2012 report Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage.

California Law Offers New Way to Finance Broadband Projects

On September 29th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that may make building community networks in his state just a bit easier. The memorably-named “Assembly Bill No. 2292” allows broadband projects to be included among the types of public works that can be financed using Infrastructure Financing Districts (IFDs).

IFDs are entities formed by regional coalitions of city, county, or other governmental units. They are designed to provide upfront funding for infrastructure projects that have broad regional benefits (highways, water systems, etc.), and are paid for by earmarking the increased property or other tax revenue the projects are expected to generate over a specified future period (usually decades). 

The idea behind IFDs - capturing future value to provide upfront funding to the projects that will create that value - is much like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts in other states. We have seen communities in other states turn to TIFs for broadband networks build outs, perhaps most notably throughout Indiana

The text of the bill is all of three lines long, and simply amends the existing authorizing law for IFDs to explicitly allow infrastructure financing districts to be used for “public capital facilities or projects that include broadband.” While the old wording of the statute did not explicitly reject using IFDs for broadband projects, it did not explicitly allow it either.

Removing the uncertainty around the issue should help encourage local governments to consider network investments, especially since one of the major unpredictable costs is incumbent lawsuits. This change will slightly reduce the opportunity for incumbents to slow a municipal network with a lawsuit.

The bill was written and sponsored by Representative Rob Bonta, who represents parts of both Oakland and San Leandro in the Bay Area. It is no coincidence that San Leandro is a city seeing the benefits of robust fiber optic infrastructure, and San Leandro mayor reportedly pushed the idea to Rep. Bonta, who made the case for the bill as an economic development driver:

Broadband provides cities and counties with an opportunity to stimulate the economic climate by providing businesses with the competitive advantage of being connected to high speed fiber optic networks. AB 2292 will help boost local economies, create local jobs and increase access for schools, libraries and other public facilities to state of the art telecommunications networks. 

While AB 2292 shows a growing awareness of the need for more public investment in broadband, it is far from a silver bullet. The political process necessary to create an IFD is cumbersome and challenging:

IFDs have to be approved by all the local agencies that would be contributing tax revenue, local property owners have to be consulted and then it goes through a series of public votes, including two – to form the IFD and then to issue bonds – that require a two-thirds majority to pass.

These are huge hurdles to clear for any major public project, and the California legislature recognized this by creating a new category of Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) in this year’s session that are more flexible and lower the bar to a single public vote and 55 percent approval. Unfortunately, the bill creating EIFDs (SB 628) does not explicitly include or exclude broadband projects, falling into the same murky middle ground that the old IFD legislation did.

The end result of the California legislative session is a partial win for community broadband networks. They get new access to an existing financing tool, but only a taste of the new and improved system. The goal for the future should be clear: get next generation broadband projects definitively included in the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District statute, so more local communities can start to enjoy the benefits of fiber the way San Leandro and Santa Monica do today.    

Crawfordsville Municipal Network Purchased by Metronet in Indiana

Our Community Broadband Map documents over 400 communities where publicly owned infrastructure serves residents, business, or government facilities. We rarely hear of publicly owned systems sold to private providers, but it does happen once in a blue moon.

Accelplus, the fiber optic FTTH network deployed by Crawfordsville Electric Light & Power (CEL&P) in Indiana was sold earlier this year to private provider Metronet.

According to a July Journal Review article, the transition for customers began this summer with completion expected by the end of 2014. Metronet invested approximately $2 million in upgrades. Metronet will also offer voice services via the network; Accelplus offered only Internet and video.

In the past, we have found that networks that offer triple-play can attract more customers, increasing revenues. In states where munis cannot offer triple-play or administrative requirements are so onerous they discourage it, municipalities that would like to deploy fiber networks sometimes decide to abandon their vision due to the added risk. 

A November 2013 Journal Review article reported that the network, launched in 2005, faced an expensive lawsuit commenced by US Bank. Apparently the network could not keep up with the repayment schedule for Certificates of Participation, backed by network revenue, that financed the investment.

Metronet purchased Accelplus and its assets for $5.2 million. The City also provided some economic development incentives. When all is said and done, investors are settling for a total of $5.6 million and the City avoids a $19.6 million lawsuit.

A February Journal Review article reported:

Metronet will receive a 10-year, $24,000 per year lease from CEL&P on property currently used by Accelplus. Metronet can purchase that property for $1 after the lease expires. Accelplus manager John Douglas has segregated those areas and provided AutoCAD drawings to Metronet.

Furthermore, CEL&P will lease 72 strands of fiber to Metronet at the rate of $24,000 per year for 10 years as part of an indefeasible right to use agreement.

A 99-year lease agreement will also allow Metronet to have equipment on CEL&P utility poles. Metronet will monitor and maintain CEL&P equipment as part of the agreement.

Metronet, established in 2005, serves 14 communities in Indiana. They will acquire approximately 2,600 customers in Crawfordsville. When the transaction was approved by the City Council in November 2013, the Journal Review quoted Metronet leadsership:

“We think Crawfordsville is a great fit for us,” Metronet representative Steve Biggerstaff said. “This is a great day of celebration for us, as well. We commend you on your vision and we look forward to continuing providing a top-notch fiber network.”

Local Accelplus customer Roger Thacker, expressed dismay in his letter to the Journal Review. It seems his experience with a local, accountable, responsive publicly owned network raised the bar. Based on all the reports we have seen (and our own experience with Comcast), we emathize with Roger:

I like Accelplus over Comcast. When there is a problem I can call the local office and the problem is fixed that day, and you get a live person on the other end. Unlike Comcast you call a toll-free number and your call goes to another state or to Canada. Then it takes them a week to fix their Internet or cable. With Accelplus you call a local number and they are there. In my opinion Accelplus is successful. It is sad to see them sell out to an outsider. I just hope we get the same service as we did with Accelplus.

The Dalles Pays off Its Network Debt Ahead of Schedule

Of the more than 400 communities around the country that have built and benefitted from community networks, the town of The Dalles in Oregon may have a case for the title of “most bang for the buck.” Their commitment of $10,000 12 years ago to leverage a $1.8 million “QLife” fiber optic network has lead to a massive, $1.2 billion dollar investment from Google in the form of a huge data center, employing nearly 200 people and generating millions in tax revenues for the local community. And at the end of September, the QLife board of directors announced that they had paid off the loans used for network construction more than three years ahead of schedule. 

We covered part of The Dalles’ network story two years ago: a small city of just 13,000 was told by Sprint in 2000 that it would have to wait 5 to 10 years for broadband Internet access. Meanwhile, local manufacturing was declining and employers were overlooking the town due to its outdated infrastructure. Before building the QLife network, The Dalles had no access to the major long haul fiber pathway that happened to run right through town. As city manager Nolan Young told Andrew Blum in an interview for his book “Tubes,” it was like “being a town that sits next to a freeway but has no on ramp.” 

The city decided enough was enough, and partnered with the county and the local public utility district on a plan for a $1.8 million, 17 mile fiber optic loop through the community that would connect anchor institutions and offer middle mile access to private providers. 

The nascent network faced opposition from a local telecom in the form of a lawsuit, which scared the public utility district away from the partnership. It had another setback when a private partner declared bankruptcy, saddling the public agency with an $800,000 loan. The city and Wasco County pressed forward with their partnership, however, and secured half of the needed $1.8 million in state and federal grants while covering the rest with loans. The city made a one-time contribution of $10,000. QLife pursued a cautious strategy, building in successive phases only after enough subscriber revenue commitments were in place to cover the requisite loan payments.  

The city’s small investment has paid off many, many times over. Major network construction was completed in 2003, and in 2005 Google announced they would locate a major new data center in the town, bringing 150 jobs and a $600 million investment. Pleased with their easy access to major fiber optic infrastructure and seeing massive growth in the demand for cloud-based applications, Google announced last year that they would double down on The Dalles, investing another $600 million and creating dozens more jobs to grow their already huge facility. 

The benefits of the network aren’t limited to a single major employer. Schools, a community college, a hospital, and a network of medical offices all use QLife’s fiber directly for fast, reliable, and secure data services. Seven different telecom and internet providers also lease fiber from QLife, increasing the competition and service quality available in the area.

Even Sprint, the incumbent who told the city to wait a decade for broadband, started upgrading their own network six months after QLife construction began. QLife and Google have even partnered to provide free WiFi throughout downtown and many of the surrounding areas. Now, with their debt retired ahead of schedule, the network is running an operating surplus in the hundreds of thousands that could be put to any number of good uses. 

Of course, not every town that builds a fiber optic network will immediately get a $1.2 billion data center. The Dalles had several factors working in their favor when wooing Google, including cheap hydroelectric power from Bonneville Power Administration dams along the Columbia River and long haul fiber optic lines running right past their doorstep. However, City leaders were smart enough to see the opportunities in front of them and determined enough to persevere in the face of opposition. Their bet has paid off immensely.

Muni Fiber in Rural Massachusetts - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 113

Though much of western Massachusetts has poor access to the Internet, the town of Leverett is in the midst of fiber build that will offer a gigabit to anyone who wants it. Peter d'Errico, on the town Select Board, has been part of the project from the start and Chairs the Broadband Committee. He joins us for Episode 113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

He and I discuss the great need for the project and inaccurate broadband maps that overstate availablility in the region. We discuss the role of the "municipal light plant" law that gave them the necessary authority to invest in the fiber.

But more interestingly, we talk about how they have structured the financing and prices for subscribers. The network will be repaid both with the revenues from subscribers and a modest bump in the property tax. The kicker is that many households will see their taxes increase a little but the amount they spend on telecom will decrease substantially, resulting in more money in their pockets each month.

We have written about Leverett often over the years, the archive is here. Read the Leverett FAQ here.

You can read a transcript of this discussion here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Rural Indiana Looks to Tax Increment Financing to Build Fiber Networks

Wabash County, Indiana wants to expand its access to high speed internet through a fiber optic network build out, and is planning to use a distinctive financial tool to do so. The Wabash County Redevelopment Commission has begun the process of assigning a special Economic Development Area designation for the purpose of helping to finance new fiber deployment through parts of the mostly rural county of 33,000 people.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is method of public financing that uses future gains in property or sales taxes within a defined area to subsidize a redevelopment or infrastructure project. A local jurisdiction can borrow money up front, build the project, and then use the increased tax receipts it generates to pay off the debt over a period of years. The concept is actually pretty simple: capture the value that something will have in the future to build it now.

TIF  has been a popular approach among local politicians around the country for decades as a way to work around tight budgets and finance improvements in blighted areas, often in the form of public infrastructure. It has sometimes drawn criticism, especially in cities like Chicago where it is very heavily used. One downside is that it effectively takes properties off the general tax rolls. 

More important for our purposes, however, is that the use of TIF for next generation fiber optic networks is a fairly new phenomenon. While municipal networks around the country have used a wide range of financing approaches to cover upfront costs, most have revolved in some way around bonds that are repaid from network revenue. Using TIF to capture the increased property value that a fiber optic network would create is an interesting approach.

In the case of Wabash County, it’s not yet clear exactly how the funds would be used. There is a local private incumbent provider, Metronet, which received $100,000 last year to match its own $1 million investment to bring fiber to a town on the north edge of the county. The county also has a cooperative utility (Wabash County REMC) that provides power and telephone services in rural areas and has expressed interest in using TIF to build out a fiber network. Whichever entity ultimately receives TIF money, it does not appear that the county is interested in owning the network itself. 

Wabash County is not alone it its pursuit of TIF-backed fiber networks. Other counties and municipalities in rural Indiana have been moving along the same lines, from Chesterton in the north to Dubois County in the south. The Indiana  Association of Cities and Towns, meanwhile, recently helped defeat an attempt by telecom industry lobbyists (ahem, AT&T) in Indianapolis to pass legislation eliminating the authority of local governments to use TIF - but only for fiber optics and other telecommunications equipment.  

Whether or not TIF eventually proves to be a good tool for building high speed fiber optic networks in rural areas and small towns remains to be seen. Taking a broader view of the value of a the public and private value a municipal network creates, beyond a simple glance at network revenues, is a step in the right direction. In any case, the right of local communities to make their own choices about how best to finance, plan for, and pursue their shared needs is paramount.